Published on April 21, 2014
Don’t Kill the Cow Too Quick
An Ex-pat’s Adventures Homesteading in Panama Malcolm Henderson All Rights Reserved 2004 by Malcolm Henderson No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage retrieval system, without the written permission of the author. Dedication For my children whose misfortune it has been to have a maverick father. Table of Contents
Dedication Acknowledgements Introduction Part 1 – Getting Acquainted CHAPTER 1: TAKING A CHANCE CHAPTER 2: GETTING MY FEET WET CHAPTER 3: A PURPOSE REVEALED CHAPTER 4: IT’S A MAN’S WORLD CHAPTER 5: THE LEARNING PROCESS CHAPTER 6: THE GRINGO WATERING HOLE CHAPTER 7: DON CHICHO’S AND THE VASQUEZ FAMILY CHAPTER 8: A FOOTHOLD IN TOWN CHAPTER 9: A LOST DEPOSIT AND A FOUND FARM CHAPTER 10: OVERHEATED CHAPTER 11: JULIA’S PARTY Part II – The Challenges CHAPTER 12: THE FARM BEGINS
CHAPTER 13: THE FUNERAL CHAPTER 14: TONY IN HOSPITAL CHAPTER 15: FIRST NIGHT AT THE FARM CHAPTER 16: FILIPE GOES ASTRAY CHAPTER 17: THE PLANE CRASH CHAPTER 18: ENLARGING THE FaRM CHAPTER 19: THE NEED FOR A TOWNHOUSE CHAPTER 20: TAKEN BY SURPRISE CHAPTER 21: DON’T KILL THE COW TOO QUICK CHAPTER 22: PIG WRESTLING CHAPTER 23: THE COST OF CONSTRUCTION CHAPTER 24: BIANCA JOINS THE FAMILY CHAPTER 25: THE STORM CHAPTER 26: THE SCREAM CHAPTER 27: ADVICE FROM DOWN UNDER CHAPTER 28: TIME TO DISPAIR CHAPTER 29: CONFRONTATION CHAPTER 30: TONY GOES TO THE CLINIC CHAPTER 31: ANIMAL MISMANAGEMENT CHAPTER 32: BUYING A HORSE
CHAPTER 33: MORE CHANGES AT THE FARM CHAPTER 34: SOCIAL TACTICS CHAPTER 35: A GLORIOUS START TO A DAY OF TROUBLE CHAPTER 36: A LIFELINE JUST IN TIME Part III - The Turn of the Tide CHAPTER 37: THE REVIVAL CHAPTER 38: VISITORS CHAPTER 39: THE SCHOOL IN LAGUNA TIERRA OSCURA CHAPTER 40: PAT AND THE OLD FOLK’S HOME CHAPTER 41: AIRPORT TROUBLES CHAPTER 42: LLUVIA AND I HAVE A DISPUTE CHAPTER 43: THE LOSS OF LLUVIA CHAPTER 44: APARTMENT TO RENT CHAPTER 45: THE SNAKE MAN CHAPTER 46: THE BANDERADO CHAPTER 47: WHERE ANDRES WAS BORN
CHAPTER 48: THE JOURNEY’S END AND A NEW BEGINNING EPILOGUE AN EXPLANATION OF THE RACIAL AND CULTURAL MIX OF BOCAS DEL TORO AUTHOR’S NOTE Acknowledgements The support of other had made the self-indulgence of writing this book possible. I thank my wife, Patricia Buckley Moss, for her patience, my son Jaik Henderson and friends Bonnie Stump and Marilyn de Waard for corrections to my spelling and punctuation. Tricia Miles for further perceptive editing and her tireless entering of the corrections, Clyde Stephens for contributing to the Notes to Chapter One on the subject of the cultural mix of Bocas del Toro, and Tito Thomas for correcting my Spanish spellings. I am also grateful to Richard Paris, Karen Jones and Lilia Gutierrez for encouraging me to complete the writing marathon.
Joanne Vaquez (in hat) and her sister Julia watching the Independence Day parade from Bocas Main Street circa 1958 Introduction The dream of retiring to a tropical island passes through the minds of many faced with the pressures of First World life. Inexpensive beach front living, cool sea breezes, no winter heating bills, domestic help at wages affordable by pensioners and margaritas sipped beneath palm trees as the sun sets all combined to stimulate desires for change. For most, the dream remains a dream. My impulsive decision to force change at the moment when the desire was at its height led to the purchase of a house on one island and a rainforest on another. It was a selfish act committed at the end of our first full day in Bocas del Toro and without the prior approval of my wife. However it may well have saved our lives. My wife, Pat Buckley Moss, is an artist, one of those few artists who make a healthy income from the sale of their paintings and prints. In 1997, I was her manager. Together we traveled the United States promoting her art and benefiting local charities by her presence at fundraising events. Often we drove long distances after late night receptions. We were riding a carousel that we seemed powerless to stop. We were at risk of a stroke or a major road accident. With an unexpected week to spare, we headed to Costa Rica to visit members of an indigenous Indian tribe, hoping they would show us the path to a tranquil life. Diverted by a washed out road, our journey took us to the archipelago of Bocas del Toro in the Republic of Panama. It was here the adventures of the next six years began. In much of the first half of my life, I had lived in exotic places – the New Terrorizes of Hong Kong, the Highlands of Kenya, the Nilgris Hills of Southern India, and the foothills of Mount Trodos in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus – lands and peoples that I came to love. Panama was to become my final destination and the most loved of them all. I was in my fifties before I first visited the Caribbean. On the island of Carriacu that belongs to Grenada, Pat and I found a hilltop cooled by the ever- present trade winds. Our interest in purchasing the land and building a second home ended when the Californian owner jumped the price four-fold.
By then I was hooked on the Caribbean with its easy access from the United States, its sea breezes, clean air, abundance of fish and fresh fruit and a cost of living a fraction of that in the First World. It took another fifteen years for me to arrive at the point of purchase. The lesson learned over the six years covered by this book come from practical experience. Many are lessons on what not to do and as such are helpful to those whose dreams are in the formative stage or those who are beginning the experience of adapting to life in a Latino country. The building of an unusual house and the gradual conversion of a neglected property into a self-sufficient organic farm were challenges that took me close to breaking point. The support of my new Panamanian friends carried me through the roughest times. The depth to which ex patriots immerse themselves in local culture ranges from those who live amongst their own kind in gated communities, with little social interchange beyond their walls, to those who live among the locals and absorb their customs. As this book reflects, my path led me into some invaluable friendships outside of the foreign community. These friendships have changed my perception as to what are the true rewards of life. Like most of the world’s less developed countries, Panama has held to practices that sadly have become diluted or lost in the busy lifestyles of the people of the wealthiest nations. Here the extended family tradition is still strong, ensuring that few o without food and shelter and that the elderly are cared for within the family home. There is time to smile and to converse with a stranger. Eye contact is not considered to be harassment and is returned in kind. Conversations are sincere and forthright and, although at first they can be a little disconcerting, one soon appreciated the frankness. Amongst the indigenous people, the understanding of Nature’s needs and of mankind’s dependence on her bounty, remain both practical and spiritual. Although this is a small country, it has a distinctive personality that manifests itself in the friendliness of its people. It is a country in which the stranger soon feels comfortable and unafraid to ask for help. About the size of South Carolina, Panama today has a population of approximately three millions. The country forms a lateral land bridge linking the continents of North and South America. Its Northern shores are Caribbean and its Southern border the Pacific. High mountains run most of its length, creating distinctly different climatic conditions on either side. The diversity of habitats gives Panama a vast variety of animals and plant life, some of which is not yet catalogued. Bocas del Toro is on the North Coast, an hour’s flight or a nine-hour drive from Panama City, the nation’s capital, and twenty miles from Costa Rica. When Pat and I first arrived, Bocas was a sleepy backwater, visited only by
those tourists seeking the road less traveled and unknown to most Panamanians. Malcolm Henderson Bocas del Toro, May 2004 Chapter One: Taking a Chance Cool water flowed over my shoulders and down the front of my sweat laden shirt. I was sitting in a rock chair sculpted by the passage of a jungle stream. Beyond the sound of the falling water, silence extended indefinitely. On either side dense foliage formed an impenetrable barrier. I breathed deeply, filling my lungs with virgin air unsoiled by man. The sun's rays filtered through the canopy, creating stencils of light on leaves the shape of elephant ears. I listened to the silence, imagining eyes watching through gaps between leaves, observing me, as an inquisitor observes his prisoner. I became nervous. If attacked, no one would hear my cry. When my eyes had adjusted to the dim light, details appeared in the shadows. On a leaf, within arm’s reach, sat a red frog no bigger than the nail of my smallest finger. He was facing me, motionless, apparently unafraid, though I was, in all probability, the first human he had seen. I stared back, waiting for him to move but he felt no need to do so. "If this frog has no fear, why am I nervous?" I asked myself and finding no valid reason, relaxed. "Thank you for being here," I said to Frog. "I am pleased to have someone to share this moment." Frog disdained to comment. This was his time for meditation. "I am sorry," I said. Following Frog's example, I focused on the chant of the cascading water. I tried to meditate, but many thoughts kept erupting in my mind. Five days ago, Pat and I had flown to San Jose, Costa Rica. "We have a free week. I want us to fly to Costa Rica and visit the Bribri Indians. We need their help," I had told Pat one evening in Virginia. "What for?" she had asked. "We need them to teach us how to jump off this runaway carousel before it kills us.” "Whatever you say, darling. I’ll go along with you. You usually know what’s best."
Pat and I have been married for fifteen years. She is a successful artist. Her medium is watercolor and her talents have brought her wide recognition across the United States. Along with this recognition and the fact that she is a dyslexic success story, had come demands for appearances at galleries and charity fundraisers. I had been her escort and manager. Together, we had driven from gig to gig, often traveling late at night after exhausting public appearances. We had reached our mid-sixties and, although we had said it would never happen to us, age was beginning to sap our energies. We were on the fast track to either a road accident or a stroke. We needed to adjust our priorities, but we did not know how. We had arrived in San Jose to find the rainy season had begun earlier than usual. After a night of listening to thunderous rain beating on the tin roof of our modest hotel, we prepared to catch the bus to Puerto Viejo and the start of our walk to join the Indians. Pat already had her rucksack in the passage when the telephone rang. "Forget it! Don't answer it!" Pat had called as she headed down the corridor. “Forget it, or we’ll miss the bus.” I was in one of my moods in which I do the opposite to whatever Pat says. I picked up the phone. A man's voice informed me the road to Puerto Viejo was washed out. It would be several days before it became passable. "Can we go home early?" Pat asked. "There is no point in sitting here in the rain." "It isn't raining in Panama," I said. "Where is Panama?" asked Pat. "Next door," I replied. "I have read about a place called Bocas del Toro, ‘The Mouths of the Bull.’ I want to check it out." "We only have four days left," said Pat. "Fine. One day to get there, two days to explore and one day to come back." "Whatever you say, my love," said Pat resignedly. We flew south along Costa Rica's Pacific coast. To our left I got a clear view of the Continental Divide. At the summer reunion of my army buddies, a retired general and I had boasted that next year we would walk from the Atlantic to the Pacific. We should have known better. The map we were studying had told us nothing of the series of steep ridges that run parallel to the chain of mountain peaks. From six thousand feet above, it was clear that we would have suffered an ignominious defeat. Soon after crossing the Panamanian border we landed at David, the second largest city in Panama and the capital of the province of Chiriqui, the province in which Noriega built the power base that enabled him to eventually take control of the country.
As we climbed out of the plane, we were hit by a wall of hot humid air and before reaching the shade of the little airport, my shirt was wet with sweat. We had six hours to wait for the thirty minute flight that would lift us over the Continental Divide and down into Bocas del Toro. We took a taxi into town and wandered aimlessly around uninspiring shops before sitting on a concrete bench in the small rectangular park that forms the center of the city. Pat lied down, and I cradled her head on my lap. The hours passed slowly. Back at the airport, we found a table in a shaded outdoor café. Nearby sat a young girl in a neat blue uniform. "There is a lot to be said for school uniforms," Pat remarked. It appeared the three of us were the only passengers for the flight to Bocas. Pat and I were the first into the little plane. We took the two front seats and were adjusting our belts when the girl passed by and entered the cockpit, taking the seat next to the pilot. "Probably the pilot's girlfriend," I remarked. "More like his daughter," was Pat's comment Through the open door we could see the girl in the co pilot's seat. She was playing with the instruments. "Can you imagine that being allowed back home?" I asked. "Quaint," said Pat. "She’s starting the engine," I said as the single prop struggled into life. "Hey, remember you got us into this," said Pat with a trace of nervousness. We started down the runway gaining momentum. The girl pulled back on the joystick and we rose rapidly above the fertile coastal plain looking down on fields of wheat, barley and rice. Moments later we were over the foothills of the Continental Divide and below us were fenced farms with cattle and horses. Continuing our climb toward clouds that shrouded the mountaintops, the scene below changed yet again and we were above steep hillsides of neatly regimented coffee trees. This side of the divide the rainfall is moderate and, depending on the altitude, a variety of crops flourish. I had read that the province of Chiriqui is the breadbasket of Panama. The girl took us into a steep climb, lifting into thick cloud. The ride became a nightmare, with the little plane bouncing about like a cork in the eddy of a waterfall. I felt Pat's hand tighten its grasp on mine. A curtain of gray covered the windows. In a fleeting gap we caught a glimpse of the summit of Volcan Baru, Panama’s highest mountain, above us and to the left but then it was gone. "How does she know how high to go?” asked Pat.
"Instruments," I answered through clenched teeth. We both closed our eyes. "Please God, get us out of this one," I begged. God heard me and took pity. We began to descend and dropped down into crystal clear weather and our first sight of the archipelago with its five major islands and myriad of surrounding islets. We were in awe of its beauty. Bathed in the soft tones of evening light and encased in the pinks of a spectacular sunset, the scene immediately won a place in our hall of favorite memories. The girl achieved a feather bed landing and we relaxed our grip on each other's hand. "Wonderful flight!” I called through the open door of the cockpit. “Wouldn’t have missed it for anything.” The girl smiled. I don't know if she understood me. "Gracias," she said and continued with a rapid stream of Spanish that I think was an apology for the bumpy ride. I came back to the present. Frog had moved to the forward edge of his leaf and was basking in a circle of sunlight. I should have left at that point and followed the stream to the beach where Pat and Peter Kent, a fellow Englishman and the owner of this property, were swimming. Instead I stayed, loathing to leave the present and commit this magic to the lesser joy of memory. We had met Peter, a six-foot-three, blue-eyed Adonis, last night over supper and had accepted his invitation to show us Bocas and its surrounds during our two remaining days. We had each been served a handsome sized king mackerel, grilled to perfection by Alberto Barbarossa, an Italian who with his wife Marcela owned the Todo el Mundo Restaurant. A leaking roof and a stream of water crossing the floor had failed to suppress our good humor. We were delighting in the relaxed atmosphere of this sleepy tropical town. After dinner we left Peter's company and walked down the main street, Calle Rev. Ephraim Alphone. The street was wide and once had a center garden of trees and plants running the quarter mile of its length. There being only ten cars on the island, pedestrians ruled the road. The drivers of the cars had to navigate their way cautiously around each strolling group. "This reminds me of the main street in Perugia," Pat said, referring to one of our favorite Italian cities. "Everyone is out parading." We adjusted to the general pace of the evening stroll, walking alongside families of Ngobe Indians, Afro-Antilleans and Chinese. The smallest of the Ngobe children rode on the hips of older siblings. The Afro-Antilleans, taller than the Indians, walked with the rhythm of the Caribbean, always about to break into dance. The Chinese were gracious and more reserved.
There were many faces that told of mixed parentage, faces that had taken the best features of each race and molded them into a work of beauty. Later, we were to learn that the name for those of mixed color, particularly of Indian and white parentage, is mestizos. We had only been in the town a few hours but felt at ease. There was gentleness and a respect in the way greetings were exchanged at every opportunity. "Buenas noches," we responded to smiles and eye contacts that assured us of welcome. "Enjoying this, darling?" I asked Pat. "I am glad we came here," she said, squeezing my hand. "It feels good to be here." We were lulled to sleep by the gentle lapping of the sea beneath our bedroom floor. Our nine-dollar-a-night hotel room, with its headless shower spigot and its tattered linoleum floor, was a romantic adventure and worth twenty times its price. In the morning Peter had brought his boat to the hotel verandah and carried us to Isla Carenero, an island a quarter of a mile from the town. There he showed us two houses he had recently built. The first house won our hearts. Made of local hardwoods, it had a tree trunk for a center pole and a reception room large enough to host dinner for twenty and out of each window, views to the ocean. I watched Pat. She cannot enter a house without embarking on the mental exercise of deciding the furniture she would choose and the theme of the decoration. "Do you feel a good karma?" I asked. "Yes, and you, too. I can tell." "Where would you paint?" "No problem. We would build a separate studio." From the house on Isla Carenero, Peter had brought us in his boat to this waterfront property at Punta Viejo, on the far end of Isla Bastimentos. It consists of twenty five acres of virgin rainforest and a beach of soft golden sand. It was time to go, but still I had not resolved the question in my mind. Should I buy the house and this rainforest and be sure of saving our lives or should I go back to the States and discuss the idea rationally with Pat and the children? "Which should I do?" I turned to ask Frog, but he was no longer there. Was this an omen? I looked for Pat on the beach. She was swimming, still wearing her hat as protection from the noontime sun. I took photographs of her against a backdrop of white surf where waves that originated far across the ocean
smashed onto coral. She called to me but her voice was drowned by the surf's continual roar, the roar of a freight train passing between tall warehouses but never receding into the distance. I swam to her. "It’s heaven," she said. "And all this just for us.” I kissed her. "It has possibilities," I said. "Shame Peter's here," she smiled. "It does have possibilities." It was time to leave. Peter headed the boat for the only gap in the reef. There the waves passed through the barrier unbroken, alarmingly tall and menacing. He judged the moment. With surf high on either side, we slapped our way into and over the next wave. It was exhilarating and when safely on the open sea, I felt a sense of achievement, as if I had been at the helm. On our way back to Bocas, we stopped at a thatched restaurant over the water on the edge of a small island called Cayo Crawl that lies between Isla Bastimentos and Isla Popa. There we took a late lunch of fried red snapper, rice and plantains. Fish of brilliant crimson, yellow and aquamarine swam beneath us. A two foot barracuda lay motionless and menacing. We scraped the scraps from our plates in their direction, igniting a feeding frenzy that lasted only moments before the scene returned to the peacefulness of a hot afternoon. Before leaving, we snorkeled, having our first experience of the wondrous shapes and colors of the surrounding coral. We were both tired when Peter headed the boat for town and our hotel. Along the way we passed many small islands of mangrove trees, some which had sufficient dry land for a few palms to grow. The palms towered high above and apart from the mangroves which had their roots anchored in the sea. We encountered several dugout canoes, known locally as cayucus, traveling away from Bocas, bound for distant communities. Powered by outboard motors, they were the equivalent of the country bus. Each was heavily laden with passengers, baggage and supplies and looked ready to be swamped by the next big wave. When we arrived at the hotel, Pat was the first out of the boat. "I am going to take a shower and then a rest," she announced. "I want to take another look at the house," I said. "I won't be long." Back on the island, I asked Peter for the use of his phone. I called our accountant Bill Speakman at his home in St. Michaels, Maryland. I asked God to let him be there. I needed a quick answer. We had one day left before returning to San Jose. “Well, hello, Malcolm. Where are you for goodness sakes? I never know where you and Pat are, you keep hopping around so." Ann, Bill's wife, had answered the phone. "Ann, I am in Panama. Is Bill there?"
"In Panama. Oh my goodness. What is the weather like? Pat isn’t there with you is she?” asked Ann. "It is hot and sticky. Yes, Pat is here with me. Ann, is Bill there?" "Give Pat my love and tell her to be careful. Isn't Panama Noriega Country?" "It was once," I admitted. "Ann, it is important that I speak to Bill now and besides I am using someone else's phone. Is Bill there?" "I’d better call him for you," said Ann reluctant to end our conversation. "He’s outside building a hoist for his new boat." I waited patiently while visualizing the message being passed to Bill, and Bill laying down his tools and walking to the house. In my mind I traveled the course twice at a conservative pace but still no further sound at the other end. I was about to give up when I finally heard Bill’s voice. "How much do you need?" "How do you know what I am calling about?" I asked amazed. "I know you. You want me to tell you can have one hundred and forty thousand." "Bill, you are incredible! One hundred and thirty will do." "As long as it is not Pat's money, go ahead and spend it." "You don't think I am mad?" "Yes! But you are old enough to make your own decisions without me telling you what you should do." "Thanks, Bill. Standby to transfer the money." By the time Peter and I headed to the hotel, an hour had elapsed. As we approached, I saw Pat on the verandah. She looked refreshed and glamorous and was talking with a red headed man, somewhat younger than us. The two of them watched our arrival. "Hey, darling, what have you been up to? What’s that smile all about?" asked Pat. "I have bought that beach where you swam this morning and the twenty five acres of rainforest." "You’re still smiling. What else have you done?" "I bought the house." "See what I mean?" Pat said to her companion. "He dances to his own tune and doesn’t consult me. Not even on the matter of a house. "Malcolm, this is Jeff. He is an international equestrian judge. He owns a lot on Isla Carenero and after what you’ve just done, it looks as though we’ll be neighbors.” At dinner that evening Peter was more than willing to pick up the check. In the four years he had been buying and selling property in the Bocas, this was the best day he’d ever had.
"Malcolm, do you mind if I ask what made you make such a quick decision?" Peter asked. "It was a matter of life or death." “I see. But could you explain it bit more. I’m delighted, of course, but I’ve never known anyone to make up his mind so quickly.” "Peter, if we were to go home uncommitted, our children would promptly rationalize us out of buying property in Panama. We would be pounded with reasons why doing so would be lunacy. It would be our age, Noriega’s legacy, disease and lack of first rate medical facilities, crime, responsibilities to our grandchildren. It would be an odds on bet that you would never hear from us again." "That is what happens nine times out of ten," admitted Peter. When Pat and I arrived back in Mathews, Virginia, I e-mailed my four sons with the news that I now owned property in Panama. Three were too shocked to comment. The fourth, Dougal, who lives in Brisbane, Australia, responded with, “Good on you, Dad. You did right.” Two days later there was a second message from Dougal. “Dad, did you forget that when I was eighteen and hitching to Peru, Olivier and I spent three or four days in Bocas before walking over the mountains to David?” I had forgotten, but then I recalled Dougal telling me of how he and a French school friend had come upon an island paradise on the Caribbean coast of Panama. That had been in the 1980's when Bocas was truly an isolated community with no road connection to the rest of the country. Relieved to have someone not think me crazy, I called Dougal. “We had come down the coast from Costa Rica and took a break to swim and just relax in the little town,” he told me. “There were only two ways to go from there. We could either wait a week for the boat that would take us along the coast to Colon or we could walk over the mountains to David and the Pan American Highway. We did the latter to save both time and money. “The journey took four days,” he continued. “The first day we hired an Indian to take us in his cayucu across the lagoons to Chiriqui Grande. The second day we walked along a banana railway track to the foothills. That was hard going because the sleepers were unevenly spaced and we had to keep changing our strides. We spent that night with an Indian family whose finca (farm) was close to a glorious rock pool where we swam and bathed. By the second night we were on the top of the mountain ridge where we pitched our tents next to another Indian’s home. The third day of walking brought us to David.” Dougal is the adventurer amongst my four sons. After becoming bored with working in the financial sector of the City of London, he and three friends
from his days at Oxford University bicycled from London to Australia. For each country they crossed, their sponsors donated to The Red Cross. It took them a year and some risky moments to complete their journey. The informality of the Australian business world appealed to Dougal and he stayed, eventually taking Australian citizenship. The knowledge that Dougal had trod these parts caused me to wonder if others with our genes were once here. Could one of our forebears have been amongst the early Scottish settlers? Could this be why I felt at ease with these people? Perhaps some were distant cousins whose highland genes had long intermingled with those of forebears of darker color. The Isla Colon carrying household goods under escort of author and Virginia
Chapter Two: Getting My Feet Wet Two months later, Pat and I returned to Bocas for an extended stay stretching from Christmas to Easter. We had expected Peter to be at the airport. We were greeted instead by a black girl with a warm smile and confident manner. "Senor Malcolm and Senora Patricia, welcome. My name is Virginia and Senior Peter asked me to look after you. He did went to New Zealand for two months to see his parents." Virginia had a taxi waiting, and in no time we were back on the verandah of the Las Brisas Hotel, looking down on a new fiberglass boat. "Senior Malcolm, this is your boat and this is Evan Castil. He work for Peter," said Virginia, introducing a man in his early thirties, whose name and features evidenced his mix of racial genes. I looked down at the boat, an eighteen foot fiberglass skiff with a pointed bow and a shallow “V.” A forty HP Yamaha engine was mounted on the transom. There was no center consol with wheel and no electric start. The throttle was in the steering arm and to start you cranked the engine with a pull cord. Evan was stowing our baggage while Pat was climbing aboard. Virginia handed me the safety key and with an air of confidence that was not in keeping with my nervous feelings, I set about starting the engine. There being only four miles of hard top road in Bocas and everywhere the sea, a boat is as essential as a car back home. It would be a poor beginning to admit I am a strictly a car and motorcycle man and have never driven an outboard or helmed anything bigger than a sunfish. I had asked Peter to order us a boat just like his, but I had expected him to teach me how to use it. "We'll see you over there," said Virginia. "Evan and I will follow. Ramon, the caretaker, is waiting on the dock to carry the baggage." I pulled the starting cord. The engine turned over but did not fire. I pulled again with increased vigor and nothing happened. I kept pulling. The sun was directly overhead and I felt its intensity on the back of my neck. Sweat ran from my forehead into my eyes. I took a rest, mopping the sweat with my handkerchief. My eyes were stinging. I heard Evan whisper to Virginia. I looked up. "Senor Malcolm, have you put the key in?" asked Virginia. "You have to put the key I give you round that red button there." The red button located and the key inserted, I pulled again but by then my strength was gone. "Senor Malcolm, I think it best if Evan and I come with you," said Virginia and the two of them came aboard.
We crossed to the island with Evan at the helm, and I feeling a failure. I was the owner of this boat, but not the captain. I wondered if I would ever be able to handle it. For the first time, I had doubts as to whether we belonged here. Our house exceeded in beauty the images that had lived with us those past months. Virginia had placed flowers in every room, great bursts of red and yellow blooms from plants we had not encountered before but whose names we had heard or read somewhere in the past. A sea breeze cooled our bodies. We walked from room to room, looking out of windows. To the front of the house was the sea, to the back the jungle, green and beckoning. "I stock the fridge with sufficient for you for today," said Virginia as she opened the refrigerator door to reveal a variety of essentials. "Peter has left you his pots and pans, china and knives and forks to use until you get your own. There is no hurry because he will not be back soon. You can buy more food at the market in the morning." We tried to think if there was anything else we needed that night but it seemed that Virginia had thought of everything. "Right. I'll leave you then," said Virginia. "Here is your boat key. Remember to insert it before trying to start." Soon after Virginia left, a neat, diminutive white skinned lady of our own age appeared at the door dressed in a sarong and sporting a red flower in her hair. "Welcome. I am Joan. Ron and I live two doors down. We are here for another two weeks. We spend half the year here and the other half at our home in Alabama. I thought you might like this cake." We thanked Joan profusely, delighted by this show of friendship and the knowledge that for two weeks at least, we had a source to turn to for advice; Ron and Joan were four-year veterans of Isla Carenero. "Ron would have come with me but he has a man working with him building a new dock. When you are settled in we will have you come over for supper." Ron, a compulsive engineer whose hands can never be idle, had discovered Bocas a quarter of a century earlier when working for the Agency of International Development on a feasibility study for the future road over the mountains to the Pan American Highway. With children and grandchildren matching ours, they had purchased the first house Peter built. That evening, finding homes for our belongings, we felt like newlyweds. We ate at the dining table made by Peter's workers from a design sent by Pat. Pat had also designed the dining room chairs and our king-size bed. Pat’s design of the chairs had shown the intended height of the backs measured from the floor but instead, the carpenter had measured from the
seat level, giving us chairs whose backs reached up to the top of our shoulders. The effect was both elegant and unique and to be the subject of comment by every new visitor. We watched the flames of candles sway in the eddy of the fan and we breathed the scent of the flowers. The Chilean wine was surprisingly pleasing and the simple meal became a gourmet delight. Our mattress was hard to the degree we both like and our night in our new house was one of absolute contentment. In the morning we ventured to cross the water to visit Andino's store. Pat stood in the bow with bowline in hand, ready to jump ashore and make fast the boat. I had spent the first part of the morning practicing nautical maneuvers under the tutelage of Ramon, Indian caretaker, a man of amazing tact and patience. As we approached the market, I saw several men standing on the dock with apparently nothing to do but watch our arrival. Their presence distracted my concentration and I forgot Ramon's caution to reduce speed early and come in slowly. I was barraged by instructions shouted from the watching group. "Cut it, Mister.” "Take it slow, Capt'n," and, "Put in reverse for Christ's sake, Mon." I followed the last suggestion and thrust the gear lever straight into reverse, completely forgetting to pause in neutral. There was an unhappy sound of grinding gears and then silence. The engine had stalled and I was left without stopping power. While I looked back at the engine in disgust, we continued forward till the bow hit the concrete dock head on with an ominous sound of splitting fiberglass. Pat was thrown forward into the arms of a black Hercules. "Nice catch, Mon. Now put the lady down,” advised one of the spectators. Pat thanked her savior and then turned to glare at me. "Do that again, and I’m going home," she said with justification. Andino’s supermarket was our first surprise. It measured only some sixty feet by twenty. With two center displays, the aisles were barely shoulder width apart, making it often impossible to pass other people without bodily contact. The alternative was to move at the leisurely pace of the person in front or to go into reverse and approach from another aisle. The range of foods and necessities was utilitarian and geared to local tastes and needs. In spite of Virginia's efforts to keep us safe from harm, it was not long before my first visit to the emergency room at the Bocas hospital. On the fourth day, I came back from town carrying a carton piled high with groceries over which I could not see. I was walking to the house, keeping to the center of the dock by looking down at my feet.
As I neared the shore, I caught sight of a movement to my right. Looking up, I saw a young white boy walking the beach. I was taken aback. I did not know there was anyone other than Joan and Ron on this part of the island. Still looking at the stranger, I veered to the right and fell off the dock into the sea. My left foot caught the edge of the dock and was wrenched backwards. Groping to catch floating oranges and to salvage bags of coffee and sugar, I was aware of acute pain in my ankle. During a sleepless night of throbbing agony, my ankle grew to the size of my thigh. I called Virginia early in the morning and she organized my rescue from the island and delivered me by taxi to the hospital. X rays, pain pills, and a plaster cast cost me eleven dollars. I was almost sorry to hear I had not broken my ankle. It seemed unjust to have to suffer intense pain for just a sprain. "The doctor said it is an extremely bad sprain," I told fellow members of the Gringo (foreign) community, but Gringos are not sympathetic to one who walks off his own dock. I hobbled around town, miserable about the snorkeling I imagined I would have been doing. Soon after my accident, I appointed Virginia to be our agent. I started paying her a monthly retainer to do her best to keep us out of trouble. She took her duties seriously, even to the extent of trying to keep me clean and smart looking. "Senor Malcolm, you look all raca taca. Your shirt has spots on it. You have not shaved properly and your socks don't match." "I am sorry!" I said. "It is all because of this leg of mine." "You should be ashamed of yourself," she reprimanded me, ignoring my plea of mitigation. "Have you done your homework?" She would often ask. Spanish classes had become part of our daily routine. In the mornings, Pat painted at the dining room table and drew the plans for the building of a more practical easel, additional furniture and the studio Peter would build after our return to the States. Occasionally, she took time off to play cards with Joan. My office was one-half of the downstairs bedroom. At first, I found the jungle's close proximity a distraction. I would start e mails to folks battling winter storms up north with an account of the view from my window and the mention that when work was over I would be windsurfing. I found working from a distance to be productive. I got more done in less time without the distraction of visitors or verbose phone calls. Often, I would fire off an e-mail to our staff at the start of their workday, just to let them know I was still on the team.
Virginia was teaching at the high school and in the afternoons when school was over, she came to teach Spanish to Pat and me. I am unable to roll my “r’s” and that put me at a disadvantage, but I loved the language. I made good progress, even though my pronunciation would never amount to much. In my own school days, I was hopeless at languages, along with every other subject except geography, where my painstakingly drawn maps won praise. Now, I found myself enjoying learning for the first time. Virginia and I started a program in the Isla Carenero Elementary School to teach English to the Indian children. With fewer fish in the sea and tourists coming to visit the islands, the tourist industry was becoming an alternative to fishing. A knowledge of English would greatly improve the chance of employment. Historically, the Bocas man's role had been to fish and the woman's to have babies and take care of them. Many of the Indian girls started producing babies in their mid teens, some even earlier. It was not unusual for a woman to bear ten or more children, often sired by more than one man. Another consideration that made us sure of the necessity for our program was the growing dominance of the English language on the World Wide Web. If any of our students were to continue their education beyond high school, the ability to read English and access information from the Internet would be invaluable. We began a practice of going around the classrooms asking the children, "What would you like to be when you leave school?” At the start of our program, most seemed surprised by the question, as if there was an alternative to fishing and producing babies. We told them that through hard work at school and staying free from drugs and alcohol, they could qualify for jobs that would earn a regular wage and give their family security. A change was not long in coming. Soon we had children aspiring to become teachers like Virginia, whom they much admired. Others talked of being nurses, carpenters, tourist guides and chefs. Ramon's oldest daughter set her heart on becoming a veterinarian, an ambition that may be within her reach judged by her results in high school. News of our English program reached The P. Buckley Moss Society, whose membership consists of collectors of Pat's paintings and prints and whose mission includes helping Pat in charitable endeavors. The Society adopted the English program and has provided much of its funding. The combination of being a Gringo (The word Gringo refers only to those foreigners whose native tongue is English; however, in Bocas the term is often used to describe all foreigners of Caucasian origin. For simplicity I have followed this colloquial use throughout the book and ask those of other tongues to forgive me) and having a leg in plaster made me a subject of
interest to the locals. On a day when nothing much was happening, the sight of this elderly man weaving his way on crutches through the maze of potholes was worthy of comment. I knew that two men who were sitting on one of the benches by the park were talking about me. I imagined their conversation: “He from Carenero,” informed Porfilio. "He the mon what went buy da house." “What him call himself?” asked his friend, Eladio. "Me no know," said Porfilio. "Me forget ask Evan, but Evan say he good mon." Porfilio and Eladio, Afro Antilleans in their mid-thirties, were in front of the Palazio, the once grand building that is home to the provincial government, the judiciary, the local government and the post office. Like the plaster on my leg, the outside of the building had long been in need of cleaning. "What he gone do his leg then?" asked Eladio "He did went in de sea." "How he do that?" "Evan say he did went walk off de dock," Porfilio said. Although the two can speak Spanish, they prefer to converse in English. Word of my accident had spread quickly. For those who asked, Virginia and Evan told them that I was known as Senor Malcolm. Senor, or Senora in the case of a woman, is a respectful title used when addressing an older person or when speaking about that person. In Bocas, with its English language heritage, Mister and Miss are also used, as they still are in some rural parts of the States, including the County of Mathews, Virginia, our Stateside abode. Pat, therefore, is known as Senora Patricia or Miss Patricia. Patricia spoken in Spanish, with each symbol distinctly pronounced is a much prettier sound than the English equivalent. It takes longer to say and requires greater lip movement but it is worth the extra effort, Pa tri ci a, with the “i” letter pronounced “e.” The lips are forward for “Pa,” then pulled far back for “tri,” half way forward for “ci” and forward for the final syllable, “a.” Because of the spectacle of this old man with his injured leg, I was becoming something of a celebrity. Unlike the Gringos, who considered I had let down the side by doing something stupid, the Bocatoranians have a different view. They saw me as one in need of help and as being unlikely to tell them how things should be done, a common failing of those Gringos who want to bring Californian methods and habits to Bocas. By now, my plaster was in an advanced state of decay, brought on by frequent contact with water. It was the wet season and monsoon-like rains
descended at frequent intervals. At Pat's urging, I wore a plastic trash bag over the plaster. At first it had seemed a logical solution and in any other climate it would have been. Here, with the temperatures in the 90's and the humidity close to 100, the effect was to both steam cook my leg and soften the plaster. The plaster was rapidly unraveling itself from the toes up and had developed an unpleasant odor. There were still four days until I was to have the plaster removed, but unless I were to sleep at the end of the dock there was no way I could continue to be at home. I headed up the road to the emergency room. I did not have to wait my turn to see a doctor. By unanimous agreement of all present, I was moved to the front of the line. The doctor’s judgment was swift and made without consulting my medical notes. As he retreated, a nurse handed me a pair of wire cutters. "Here, you cut it off," she said moving back to a safe distance. I cut down the side of the plaster and peeled it away, like pealing a banana. I revealed a leg that was sickly white and prune wrinkled. "Here, take this bag and put the plaster in it," the nurse told me. I did as I was told and stood to test the leg. The nurse handed me a walking stick. "You will need this until your leg regains strength. When you have finished with the stick, hand it back at the front office." I left the emergency room and walked to the front of the hospital. There I handed in the walking stick and took a taxi back to the boat. Please Like Us in Facebook :
Chapter Three: A Purpose Revealed "What is your connection with Panama?" I asked the man in the aisle seat. The dinner trays had been removed. Delta flight 363 was halfway to Panama. I had downed two dry martinis and was starting my second glass of Cabernet. Pat was asleep, her head pillowed against the window. The alcohol had encouraged me to put aside my Spanish language tapes and find what was to be learned from my neighbor. "I am an environmental scientist," the owlish man told me. "Consulting in Panama or vacationing?" I asked with genuine interest. "Neither. I am attending a symposium." He returned to the papers he had been studying. I decided it was worth another attempt. "Are we winning?" I asked. "Winning what?" He sounded irritated. "I mean are we going to be able to dispose of all our garbage before we pollute everything to death?" "In one word, No!" "Oh," I said reaching for my glass. "That's not reassuring." "From your point of view, no,” he conceded. "But for the long-term health of this planet, yes. It is all part of evolution." "Sounds like devolution to me.” "The devolution of the present and the genesis of the future." "Does the future include mankind?" I asked. "It is hardly likely." "I suppose the roaches will be top dog," I said with a nervous laugh. "You are probably right," he said. "They are equipped to survive." "When will this happen?" I asked. "A lot sooner than you think." I had not thought but now he had me thinking. He had taken out a pen and was drawing a graph on the backside of his paper. "The world population growth over the past 250 years looks like this." The graph showed an almost imperceptible climb for three quarters of its way across the scale. It then began to curve upwards, accelerating rapidly and in its final years looked as though it was already on a vertical path. "You know what happens to a colony of bacteria after reaching this point?" he was indicating the tip of the line. "No, I don't," I said. "It dies, poisoned by the accumulation of its own excrement. Nature takes it back to square one. That is the fate of mankind."
I left the environmentalist to his work. "It won't happen in what is left of my lifetime," I told myself, but found little comfort in this. I have worked hard to have money to educate my children and to help with their children's education. The future of my grandchildren is of greater importance than my own. "Maybe Nature does not have to do a total job of it. She could keep some humans alive to continue the species," I mused. Further thought brought the fear that this is hardly likely. "We humans have eliminated many thousands of species. God is hardly likely to view our case kindly," I told myself. "Well, God is benevolent and there are those of us who have spoken out against the rape of the planet. Maybe He will be selective and save us good guys." The debate within my head was getting nowhere and I switched to contemplating death. My main concern about dying is not about what will happen to me when my spirit leaves my body, but about the temporary matter of pain at the time of my departure. Death is a one time experience, and I don't want to be distracted by suffering pain. I remember reading of Doctor Timothy Leary’s death in his New York Soho loft, with his friends gathered round watching his peaceful transition. I came near to that point soon after the first visit Pat and I made to Panama. Three days after leaving Bocas, I thought I was starting the flu. "I will take myself off to the guesthouse and get over this on my own," I told Pat. "With all that you have to do in the next month, the last thing we need is you getting sick." I lay on the sofa in the guesthouse beneath a pile of blankets, alternating between bouts of sweating and attacks of shivering. I had a splitting headache and my bones were aching. "How are you doing, love?" asked Pat that evening from the safety of the doorway. "Fine!" I said. "I am sweating it out. I'll be back to normal in the morning." "I am leaving a bowl of chicken soup on the table. When I am gone, get up and eat it. It will do you good." That night the dreams started. Each was short by clock time but insufferably long in dreamtime. Between each dream I awoke disturbed in my mind and fearful of falling asleep again, knowing that I would return to the nightmares. I struggled to stay awake, not rising from the couch except to stagger to the bathroom.
In my fitful sleep, I found myself back in the army. Not in my time, but in my father's when he was a medical officer in France in the First World War. Each Christmas when I was in my early teens, I would accompany him on a visit to a patient who had also fought in the trenches. At home, my father never spoke of his war. Only when he and Sir Charles Clee had bettered most of a bottle of scotch did the tales begin. On graduating from Aberdeen University, my father, one of thirteen children of a Scottish highland family, had been appointed medical officer to an infantry battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment. Sir Charles's son John and I listened to the tales of courage, fear, carnage, sickness and madness. The images became etched in my mind. "You didn't drink your soup," I heard Pat's voice coming from afar. This time she came into the room and was standing beside the couch, her hand feeling my forehead. "You've got a fever," she announced. "What’s your temperature?" "I don't know," I said. "I don't have a thermometer." "I think I had better take you to see Michael." "What time is it?" I asked. "Ten o'clock. I didn’t come over earlier because I thought I would let you sleep. Nancy will have a thermometer. I'll get it." My temperature was 105. Half an hour later we were headed for Washington, DC, and the offices of Doctor Michael Newman, our internist. To keep my mind focused and clear of nightmares, I concentrated on thinking about Michael. Michael and I had been windsurfing buddies for several years. We had flown to Aruba on a number of occasions to catch the strong trade winds that blow across the low lying island. We would take an apartment at Sail Board Vacations and spend the daylight hours riding the ocean, the evening talking and the nights in exhausted sleep. It has always surprised me that Michael and I are such good friends. He is an intellectual, who reads and retains his information and is seldom found to be wrong on any of his vast store of facts. I am the opposite, with a lack of the ability to remember detail. Since he is our internist, Pat and I are sure to see Michael at least once a year for our physicals. Prior to our coming to Panama, we would dine twice a year with him and Marion, his equally intelligent wife. End of this sample Kindle book. Enjoyed the preview? Buy Now
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